Protection for disclosure of journalistic sources


    In Context

    • Recently, the Supreme Court quoted that journalists are not exempted from disclosing sources.

    About Issue:

    • The CBI had sought to close its investigation on how certain news channels and a newspaper had aired and published reports on a particular incident.
    • The CBI had argued that the “documents used by the news channel were forged”.
      • It could not be established who forged the documents since the “users of the forged documents did not disclose their source, therefore there is no sufficient material/evidence to prove the criminal conspiracy”.

    Legal protection for disclosure of journalistic sources in India

    • Investigative agencies can issue notice to anyone, including journalists, to provide information. 
    • Like any citizen, a journalist can be compelled to give evidence in Court. 
      • If she does not comply, the journalist can face charges of Contempt of Court.

    Court’s Observations 

    • While the Supreme Court broadly recognises the freedom of the press, including the right of journalists to ensure protection of their sources, various courts have ruled differently on this issue.
      • For example, while constituting a committee to investigate the Pegasus spyware, the Supreme Court in October 2021 said that one of the fundamental conditions for the media to exercise its right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 is the protection of ‘journalistic sources.’
    • With the absence of a specific law, it is often the discretion of a Court in such situations.
    • the Court had said that Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for the freedom of the press. 
      • Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest.

    Jurisdiction of Press Council of India 

    • Under the Press Council of India (PCI) Act, of 1978, the Press Council has powers of a civil court to deal with complaints when a newspaper has 
      • “offended against the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or working journalist has committed any professional misconduct.” 
    • However, the Council cannot force a newspaper, news agency, journalist, or editor to reveal their sources during the proceedings.

    Recommendations for a change in law

    • The Law Commission of India in its 93rd Report in 1983 recommended recognising journalistic privilege by amending the Indian Evidence Act.
      • The report suggested insertion of a new provision which would read: 
        • “No court shall require a person to disclose the sources of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, where such information has been obtained by him on the express agreement or implied understanding that the source will be kept confidential”.
    • In its 185th report on the amendments to the Evidence Act, the Law Commission again suggested this amendment.

    Global position

    • United Kingdom: 
      • The Contempt of Courts Act 1981 creates a presumption in favour of journalists who want to protect the identity of their sources. 
      • However, that right is subject to certain conditions in the “interest of justice”. 
      • The European Court of Human Rights:
        • The European Court of Human Rights in a landmark 1996 ruling held that an attempt to force a journalist to reveal his source for a news story violated his freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.
    • United States: 
      • The First Amendment guaranteeing free speech in the United States specifically mentions the press, the Supreme Court has held that journalists do not have the right to refuse to testify in a federal grand jury proceeding and disclose sources.
        • Several journalists have been imprisoned for refusing to disclose their sources.
      • However, several states in the US have “shield laws” that protect the rights of journalists to varying degrees.
    • Sweden: 
      • The Freedom of the Press Act in Sweden is a broad protection of rights of journalists and even extends to state and municipal employees who might share information with journalists freely. 
      • In fact, a journalist who reveals his or her source without consent may be prosecuted at the behest of the source.
    • France and Germany:
      • In France and Germany too, journalists can refuse to disclose sources in an investigation.

    The Indian Evidence Act

    • About:
      • The Act was originally passed in India by the Imperial Legislative Council in 1872, during the British Raj. 
        • When India gained independence on 15 August 1947, the Act continued to be in force throughout the Republic of India.
      • It contains a set of rules and allied issues governing admissibility of evidence in the Indian courts of law.